How COVID-19 Has Hurt — And Helped — Modeling Careers In China

Key Takeaways:

  • Whether Chinese models can increase their value in the domestic market is contingent on attending big shows abroad — something that has become much more difficult due to COVID-19.
  • Fortunately for Chinese models, China’s e-commerce business has matured rapidly in recent months, and the demand for online store models has skyrocketed.
  • In the age of self-generated media content, influencers have taken some a lot of international work from models. Brands now want people with good backstories and not just attractive clothes hangers.

Fashion producer and founder of the production house Peter Xu Studio, Fengli Xu, has shot many fashion campaigns and deals with models daily. And, having witnessed many of them come and go, his outlook is somewhat bleak in regards to the industry’s cutthroat operations. “I am not exaggerating when I say that over 50 percent of models will be unemployed in the future,” he said to Jing Daily. Indeed, the modeling industry in China has a checkered past.

Pierre Cardin’s 1979 show at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Beijing was the first to elevate the profession of modeling to national consciousness. Since then, China has produced generations of international supermodels, including Gen. X names like Qu Ying and Hu Bing; millennial faces like Lü Yan and Du Juan; and Gen Zers such as Liu Wen, Xi Mengyao, and He Sui. Today, Wen Xiao Xu is the current go-to favorite for luxury brands.

But, what most of these established models have in common is global recognition. The acceptance of China’s modeling industry has undoubtedly been dependent on appearances abroad. Thus, competition from Eurocentric designers has always been a battle. Yet, Chinese models also face increasingly prohibitive travel restrictions when working abroad.

“We can’t just travel outside the country on a whim,” said Hu Yifu, a model from China’s LongTeng Model agency. “We often have to renew visas. Even if you can book a job abroad, if you don’t have a visa on hand, you are stuck. This situation is very restrictive.”

Chinese model Hua Yilan. Source: Hua Yilan

Due to these restrictions, Chinese models must make the most of their time abroad. Many attend at least a dozen interviews per day, which is considered normal for Chinese models in most countries — and rewards vary. Runway models make around $235 per show. Some brand fees can be much higher: roughly between $1,100 to $2,400 per show.

Brand-exclusive deals pay more — $4,700 to $5,900 per show — yet few models actually break into this circuit. Additionally, the 2020 fashion week season added another hurdle: COVID-19. Many domestic modeling companies worried about sending their employees to runways abroad, which, in turn, hurt their careers.

“Whether Chinese models can increase their value in the domestic market is contingent on attending big shows abroad,” said model talent scout Wu Wenyuan. “If models do not leave the country and can’t get noticed on foreign runways, their ability to make money in China is greatly affected.”

However, not all is doom and gloom. China’s e-commerce business has matured rapidly in recent months. There are currently 7 million Taobao merchants, and thousands of newcomers are joining the platform daily. Therefore, the demand for new models for these online stores has skyrocketed.

In fact, e-commerce work saved the careers of many modeling agencies and models during the pandemic. And, the demand for local faces even trumped that of international models. Now, Chinese e-commerce models are paid around $150 to $300 per hour for Taobao advertisements, while e-commerce models from other countries receive around $300 for a whole day (higher-tier models make top out at around $450 per day.)

As such, there is now a bias in China towards local models. Momo, a senior agent who works for Milan’s URBN Modeling agency, is fully aware of this domestic preference but said that many young Chinese models still dream of being famous — not just making a living by modeling clothes.

“There are many high-paying job opportunities in China, like e-commerce-related ones,” Zhang explained. “But, many Chinese models care more about how many shows they walk abroad and magazine editorials. But, honestly, not everyone can earn fame and fortune by going to foreign shows.”

Similarly, while work opportunities are evolving, so too are beauty ideals. Many Western countries’ tastes are often at odds with traditional aesthetic standards in China. This disconnect often makes it difficult for Chinese models to replicate global fame back home.

Moreover, many influencers and KOL have been taking local opportunities from traditional models lately since they outperform models in the social media arena. And, in Western countries, most castings require a model’s personal Instagram account, which hurts Chinese models, who often do not use Western platforms and prefer China’s social media ecosystem.

Chinese model Haodong Zeng’s Bilibili homepage. Source: Bilibili

Since 2019, Haodong Zeng from Esee Modeling Agency has uploaded many videos of his models onto China’s top video-sharing website, Bilibili.com. These have accumulated a total of 162,000 followers and draw major advertisers (his workload doubled during the pandemic). “Some brands come to my company directly and collaborate with me through my Bilibili account,” Zeng told Jing Daily.

In the age of self-generated media content, this type of multi-dimensional presentation is crucial. Jinyuan Huang, who has been a professional model for the last 11 years, said, “Brands hope that the people they book have good backstories and are influential instead of merely being clothes hangers.”

Supermodel Liu Wen. Source: Chanel

Just as in other parts of the world, there are ways for models to elongate their career paths — from becoming model agency bosses and show directors to photographers and stylists. And models who broke through in China — from Liu Wen to Lü Yan — had to work outside of their comfort zones. In the past, these options would have been more likely to extend a model’s livelihoods. But China’s post-COVID-19 e-commerce growth offers boundless potential for models who want to cement their careers without having to settle.

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